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The Permanent Premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.  © 2016 UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

(New York) – Member countries of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should increase their support for the court in the face of increasing challenges to delivering justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, was adopted 20 years ago on July 17, 1998.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released a video on why the ICC matters today to a new generation of law students studying around the world.

“The ICC’s hard task of bringing justice to victims of grave international crimes is needed more than ever before,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “ICC member countries should use the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute to demonstrate their support for this critically important court of last resort.”

The ICC is the first permanent global court mandated to bring to justice people responsible for serious international crimes – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. The court’s treaty was negotiated over several years, starting in 1995, and concluded after a tumultuous session in Rome.

The ICC has opened investigations in 10 countries, and a request by its prosecutor to open an investigation in Afghanistan is pending before the court’s judges. But even as the court’s workload has expanded, ICC action is needed in many other places. It has been hampered by insufficient financial support from member countries, which fund the court, and limited assistance from governments to carry out investigations and arrests. In addition, court officials have made mistakes in policy and practices that need to be addressed. Fifteen arrest warrants are outstanding.

Without political action by states, including through the United Nations Security Council, the court’s treaty restricts the prosecutor’s mandate when it comes to investigating outside ICC member countries. Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have sent crimes committed in Syria, which has not joined the court, to the ICC prosecutor for investigation. Other Security Council members have used the threat of their veto power to block other action on atrocities.

“Some of the worst international crimes committed today are beyond the ICC’s reach, but by taking effective action, the ICC sends both victims and those who would commit these crimes a powerful message that there can be justice for these crimes, and that those responsible can be held accountable,” Dicker said. “But for this to happen, court officials and member countries will need to rise to the challenge.”

July 17 is also the Day of International Criminal Justice. The work of the ICC is closely linked with broader justice efforts – in national courts, through international investigative bodies, and through international and national cooperation in hybrid institutions – to meet victims’ right to justice. Human Rights Watch has released a video that highlights the important role of trials for international crimes for victims and their loved ones, whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in locations throughout the world.

There are positive signs that ICC member countries are committed to strengthening the court, Human Rights Watch said.

Several events with participation by ministers and other senior officials from ICC member countries are planned to mark the 20th anniversary. These include events on July 17 at UN headquarters in New York, and at the seat of the court in The Hague. Government-led, high-level events in other cities, as well as efforts to promote better public understanding of the court’s mandate, are taking place throughout the year.

European Union (EU) foreign ministers were expected to adopt conclusions on July 16 reaffirming support for the ICC. Human Rights Watch, along with other nongovernmental organizations, has said that the EU should go farther and deliver on a long-standing call by the European Parliament to establish a dedicated special representative on international humanitarian law and international justice, ensuring policy commitments are translated into effective action. All ICC member countries should consider signing agreements with the court to relocate witnesses and protect defendants’ rights to release on bail.

To improve prospects for justice, court officials need to address gaps in the ICC’s performance, Human Rights Watch said. Weak investigations in some of its earliest cases, lengthy investigations and court proceedings, and too-limited efforts to support victims’ access to their rights at the ICC risk undermining confidence in the court within the communities affected by the crimes within its mandate.

Strong support from member countries is key to overcoming political obstruction to the court’s work. The United States, which has not joined the court but in recent years has supported ICC investigations on a case-by-case basis, was a no-show at a July 6 informal discussion at the Security Council aimed at improving that body’s support to the court.

“There is a risk that the deteriorating global trends on human rights will all too easily be exploited to undercut the ICC by those who have something to fear from accountability,” Dicker said. “Justice supporters will need to do all they can to see to it that the ICC will succeed on this difficult landscape and deliver victims their day in court.” 

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